In June 2015, after the Pittsburgh Pirates played the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park, a band called Big & Rich took to the stage and played for fans. Coincidentally, that game was the same night as Pittsburgh Pride’s Pride in the Streets event.
I didn’t realize Big & Rich played at PNC until a few days later, but I immediately shook my head at the irony. The group’s lead singer, John Rich, had a history of making derogatory comments about LGBTQ individuals, but there he was playing for one of the city’s major sports teams on the evening of Pride. Just a week earlier, Pride’s original performer, Iggy Azalea, withdrew as the Pride headliner after community members took issue with homophobic comments she had made.
There’s always been a bit of a strange relationship between sports, professional and otherwise, and the LGBTQ community. That’s why organizations like Steel City Softball League and Steel City Bowling League have for years provided a safe space for LGBTQ athletes and their allies. But for some, the machismo-drenched world of pro sports can feel unwelcoming.
Very few professional athletes have ever come out during their playing days out of fear of how their teammates, their bosses and their fans would react. Exceptions include NBA player Jason Collins, short-lived NFL player Michael Sam (who came out while in college) and pro wrestler Darren Young.
But it does seem like things may be getting better. In February, the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted You Can Play Night, billed as the city’s first local-sports LGBTQ night. Tickets were donated by players and corporate sponsors so LGBTQ youth could come to the game. And on July 2, just two years removed from the Big & Rich show, the Pirates will hold their first Pride Day at PNC Park. If you buy tickets with the coupon code: “pride,” you can also get a Pirates hat with a rainbow-colored logo.
Things may also be changing on the football front. A couple of weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s Delta Foundation posted an article about the New England Patriots sponsoring Gay Bowl 2017, a national LGBTQ flag-football tournament taking place in October. Along with that post, Delta also posed a question for the Pittsburgh Steelers: “Is it time for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Rooney family to get involved and support the LGBT Community?”
The way the tide is turning, it appears so.